What is Triggering Your Child’s Hives?

Learn how to treat your child’s hives, which could have been triggered by a food, drug, or recent viral infection.

Has your child ever had hives?

What was the first thing you thought of?

If you’re like most parents, it is likely what your child had recently eaten, thinking that is most likely to be what is causing their allergic reaction.

Hives can be scary, because they can appear suddenly all over your child's body. They are one of those things that typically looks worse than it is though.
Hives can be scary, because they can appear suddenly all over your child’s body. They are one of those things that typically looks worse than it is though. Photo by Sussman et al (CC BY 4.0)

It is important to remember that there are many more things in addition to food allergies that can cause hives in kids though. These include medications, infections, exposure to the sun, and for some kids, even physically stroking their skin, which is called dermographism.

What are Hives?

A hive on your child's lip is much different from swelling inside their mouth and throat.
A hive on your child’s lip is much different from swelling inside their mouth and throat. Photo by Sussman et al (CC BY 4.0)

Hives are a type of allergic or immune system reaction that occurs when something triggers the release of chemicals, including histamine, from cells in a child’s body.

Hives are usually harmless if they are the only symptom your child is having.

Unfortunately, children with hives and more severe symptoms, such as wheezing, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or swelling in their mouth or throat, may have anaphylaxis – a life-threatening allergic reaction. These children need immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of Hives

In addition to their typical appearance as red or pink raised areas on your child’s skin, hives are usually:

  • itchy
  • seen alone or are in groups
  • varied in size, with some being smaller than your child’s finger tip and other’s larger than a half-dollar size. Also, hives can often merge or join to form even larger hives that, for example, can cover half of your child’s abdomen.
  • temporary and come and go over several hours. They often don’t go away completely though. Instead, old hives go away in one part of your child’s body, while new ones continue to appear somewhere else. Any individual hive shouldn’t last more than 24 hours. If it does, then your child may have a similar skin rash, such as erythema multiforme, and not simple hives.

Less commonly, hives can sting, be painful, and can leave bruises on your child’s skin.

Kids with hives may have additional symptoms depending on what is triggering the hives. For example, if a viral infection is causing the hives, then they may have a sore throat, runny nose, and/or cough.

What is Triggering Your Child’s Hives?

Although some things, such as certain foods, commonly cause hives, keep in mind that almost anything can trigger hives.

Common causes of hives can include:

  • foods, especially peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, milk, shellfish, wheat, and soy
  • medications, especially antibiotics like penicillin and sulfa drugs
  • additives in foods or medications, such as the food dye tartrazine (Yellow No. 5)
  • infections, especially viral infections
  • insect bites and stings
  • latex
  • exercise
  • stress
  • exposure to heat, cold, or water, no matter what the temperature is
  • dermatographism, a physical urticaria, in which hives are triggered by stroking the skin, such as by scratching

How do you figure out what is causing your child’s hives?

It can be hard.

To help figure it out, keep a diary of all of your child’s medications and everything he recently eat or drank, shortly before breaking out.

Allergy testing is sometimes necessary to figure out what is causing hives, especially if your child’s hives are not going away or they keep getting hives over and over. Fortunately, most kids don’t need testing for their hives, and unless the trigger is obvious, like when it follows eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or they are on Amoxil for an ear infection, there is a good chance that they won’t get hives again.

Treatments for Hives

Since hives are caused by the chemical histamine, it makes sense that you would treat them with an antihistamine medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Other sedating antihistamines that are sometimes used to treat hives include hydroxyzine (Atarax) and cyproheptadine (Periactin).

Non-sedating antihistamines, including Allegra, Claritin, Clarinex, and Zyrtec, are also used to treat hives, expecially hives that last longer than 6 weeks.

Less commonly, a child may need a steroid to treat his episode of hives.

Other treatments, especially for chronic hives, can sometimes include doxepin (Sinequan), an antidepressant that can work as a potent antihistamine, montelukast (Singulair), and medications such as ranitidine (Zantac) or cimetidine (Tagamet), which are more commonly used to treat reflux.

In some cases of persistent hives, your pediatrician might recommend that you give your child multiple medications, for example, both Zyrtec and Allegra, with Zantac!

Of course, the best treatment for hives, whenever possible, is to remove and then avoid whatever has triggering them.

What You Need To Know About Hives

Hives are not considered chronic or long-term until they last for six weeks or longer. Chronic hives are rarely caused by food allergies. In fact, triggers for chronic allergies are only found about 20 percent of the time.

What if no cause is found for your child’s chronic hives? Then your child has idiopathic hives, which should eventually go away.

What else should you know about your child’s hives?

Individual hives are also called welts (not whelps, a common misspelling for welts) or wheals.

It is a common myth that it has to be something ‘new’ that is causing your child’s hives, as it is much more common that your child has had something two, three or more times before it finally triggers hives.

And although an allergic reaction to a food is usually fairly quick, occurring within minutes to hours, it may take days or weeks for an antibiotic to trigger hives in your child. Your child might not even break out until a few weeks after finishing their last dose!

Also keep in mind that a pediatric allergist and/or pediatric dermatologist can often help your pediatrician figure out what is causing your child’s hives.

More on Your Child’s Hives

Author: Vincent Iannelli, MD

Vincent Iannelli, MD